Kayak Surfing Basics

Kayak surfing in the ocean is different in some ways than kayak surfing in a river. It is important to learn about the anatomy and mechanics of ocean waves, as well as the boats and equipment recommended for use in the ocean. With the right gear, decent waves, and practice, you can be shredding up ocean waves just as you maybe already can the river waves.

Even though I am a veteran whitewater instructor, I was glad to get some tips from Dan Crandall and Doug Schwartz, last year when we shot the Kayak Surfing video. Here are some of the tips I picked up from instructors in the Kayak surf community:

Pick Your Boat

The speed and tracking ability of a sea kayak is ideal for getting outside breaks and exploring, but it has limitations for playing in the surf, since it is difficult to turn due to its longer length than whitewater kayaks. Generally you will get turned sideways as the wave starts to break. A wipeout can be violent in big surf, so a sea kayak is best for catching large ocean swells that require lots of speed, and catching little rides on easy waves.

Sit on tops boats are the most common boat for paddlers first-ever surfing experience, especially in warmer areas. Many sit on top designs are difficult to control in the surf because the boats do not lean very easily and carving is difficult. Due to this inability to edge the boat, lips can be violent. Also due to the boat’s volume, these boats frequently stick sideways in the break all the way to shore.

Depending on the hull design, a sit on top boat can be a great warm water surf machine. Sophisticated surf designs, called wave skis, are essentially sit on top surfboards. These are the boats that people are getting familiar with now, that are incorporating the flat-bottom features of the Wave Skis and the high performance boats that we've been using on the ocean for years. This allows people to do the flat spins and other really dynamic moves on, on ocean waves.

Rodeo boats designed for whitewater are able to flat spin on wave face, and get vertical maneuvers in the whitewater pile of the wave. Classic board and kayak surfing have traditionally been I on the glassy part of waves, with the occasional rodeo move at the end of the ride. Now dynamic tumbling rodeo moves in the whitewater add exciting possibilities.

The Basics

The stern of your boat gets picked up first by the wave, and starts moving down the face of the wave. The bow is still essentially sitting on still water, so the tail is getting moved first. That is why getting some momentum before the wave gets to you helps. When you tip over, it is usually a surprise. But many capsizes can be avoided if you understand some of the dynamics of a typical flip. The wave is moving, but the water in front of it is not moving. The water in front of the wave tries to grab the bottom of the boat, then the wave knocks over the boat.

The solution to this flipping problem is easy though, simply lean hard and tilt the boat into the wave as the boat turns sideways to the wave . Good posture, with a little lean forward, will help you edge the boat correctly. Tilt the boat by transferring your weight onto one butt cheek, and get a little stability from your paddle blade stuck into the wave.

When you're surfing down a wave, you may find that you get turned sideways in front of a white foamy pile. When you do, it's important that you go immediately into a low brace for the smaller waves, or a high brace position for the larger ones. In either case, be sure you keep your elbows tucked close to your sides, never allowing them to get extended above or behind the plane of your shoulder. Either case can cause serious shoulder dislocation.

Many paddlers use a short paddle with small blades to minimize stress on their body. Start with small waves so you can get a good feel for bracing when you get turned sideways. Keep your hands loose on the paddle, because a tense grip keeps you from being relaxed and balanced in the boat. For the best surfing, you will want to actively steer the boat onto the glassy part of the wave.

Learning to kayak surf takes time and practice. Ask the local experts where to go, what boat and gear to use, and for any pointers. Soon enough you will be smiling as you stay in control surfing down the face of a glassy ocean wave.